Although human societies have confronted major hurdles throughout history, the challenges of our era are unique. Never before has the human family been on the verge of devastating the Earth's biosphere and crippling its ecological foundations for countless generations to come. We are now encountering the leading edge of a world storm whose fierce winds will tear loose many institutions from their traditional moorings. In turn, the awakening of a reflective consciousness at the scale of the entire species is fast becoming an evolutionary necessity if we are to avoid an evolutionary crash and a long detour leading to a new dark age for humanity. The circle has closed and there is no escape—the Earth has become a single, tightly interconnected system. To illustrate, here are five powerful, driving trends that are reinforcing one another and seem likely to produce, within the next decade or two, an unyielding, global, whole-system crisis:
1. CLIMATE: Human activity has already begun to destabilize the global climate, as greenhouse gases reach levels that are higher than they have been for 20 million years. Experts predict that we will experience increasing climate fluctuations with more intense storms, droughts, and stress to all ecosystems. Dramatic changes in global climate patterns will require us to make equally dramatic changes in the patterns of human living.
2. POVERTY: There is a staggering level of poverty in the world, and the divide between rich and poor is rapidly increasing. In terms of real income, it is estimated by the United Nations that the majority of people on the Earth (approximately 60 percent, or upwards of 4 billion people) live on the equivalent of $3 a day or less! Despite being effectively shut out of the global economy, they still see the American media's vision of “the good life,” of material affluence, advertised each day on television.
3. POPULATION: Human population has grown from 2 billion people in 1930 to roughly 6 billion today and, although moving toward stabilization, is expected to grow to roughly 8 billion by the 2020's. In practical terms, human beings now occupy all of the land favorable for human habitation. We are continuing to add people to the Earth at a rate equal to another Los Angeles every month, with the majority living in enormous urban shantytowns in the poorer countries.
4. RESOURCES: Fresh water is becoming a scarce resource at a global scale. It is estimated that by the 2020's, 40 percent of the people on the Earth will not have enough water to be self-sufficient in growing their own food and so will become increasingly dependent on nonlocal food sources. In this same time frame, we are expected to see an end to the era of cheap world oil. Much of the world's easily accessible oil has already been pumped out of the Earth, so that at the same time that the demand for oil is skyrocketing, the cost of supplying that oil is also increasing. The net result is that within a decade or so, world demand for oil will grow beyond what can be cheaply supplied, and we can expect the price of oil to permanently increase with reverberations throughout the global economy.
5. SPECIES EXTINCTION: There may be no greater measure of the integrity and resilience of the biosphere than its biodiversity. Yet scientists estimate that 20 percent of all plant and animal species could be extinct in the next 30 years, and 50 percent could be extinct within the next 100 years. Human activities are causing a massive, rapid, and worldwide extinction of both plant and animal species that is unprecedented in human history. Indeed, the last great extinction of the current magnitude occurred with the die-off of dinosaurs and other life after an asteroid impact roughly 65 million years ago. We are tearing at the very fabric of life.
If the human family stumbles into the future inattentive, half asleep, and mesmerized by its mass media, then children alive today will surely inhabit a planet filled with monumental conflict, destruction, suffering, and despair. The urgency of our awakening as a species was made clear in the historic 1992 Warning to Humanity, where a majority of the world's living Nobel laureates in the sciences, as well as 1,600 other senior scientists, signed a cautionary statement declaring that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. . . . A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” Pushed by the harsh reality that the Earth might be wounded beyond repair, the human family is being challenged to realize a new level of identity, responsibility, and reflective consciousness.
We no longer have the luxury of centuries for a gradual awakening. A world storm is gathering and we have only a decade or two in which to begin to genuinely mobilize our collective capacity for reflective consciousness. We are being challenged to pay attention to how we pay attention as an entire species.
There is no necessity for us to go down this path and hit an ecological and evolutionary wall. We do have the time and opportunity to design ourselves back into nature with ways of living that are in harmony with the Earth and our evolutionary journey of awakening. The question is whether we have the collective wisdom to mobilize our collective attention on behalf of a sustainable and compassionate future.